Some of the largest cable companies in the country have begun to de-emphasize cable TV as a product and it makes me wonder if smaller companies should consider the same strategy. It’s been clear to everybody in the industry that margins on cable have dropped, so the question that every cable provider should ask is how hard should you work to maintain cable customers or introduce any new innovations in your cable products?
The largest company that is downplaying cable TV is Cable ONE. Earlier this year Cable ONE’s CEO James Dolan told investors that cable had accounted for 64% of his profits in 2005, but by 2018 he expects that to drop to under 30 percent. Like many other cable companies, the lost margins on cable have been replaced by sales of broadband products.
Cable ONE has gone farther than most cable companies in de-emphasizing cable. For example, they and Suddenlink decided to drop the Viacom suite of cable networks when the programmer asked for a giant rate increase last year. This decision has cost these companies cable subscribers, and Cable One lost over 100,000 cable customers in the year after the decision, but the companies see this as a good long-term strategy.
If you are a small ISP and offer cable then your situation has to be a lot direr than Cable ONE’s. I have one small client who dropped their cable offering altogether earlier this year and they were surprised to find out how positively it affected them. They went from having a room full of busy customer service reps to having almost no inbound calls. It turns out that cable drove almost all of the inquiries and complaints to the company.
This tells me that it’s likely that offering cable is costing a small company a lot more than they realize. By the time you factor in the true amount of customer service time and truck rolls that are associated with the cable product it’s very likely that for small companies cable is completely under water.
The cable companies still have one major advantage that gives them a lot of flexibility. In the majority of the markets in the US the cable companies have no real competition with their data products and they have captured the lion’s share of the market. The latest statistics I’ve seen show that less than 10% of the homes in the country have access to fiber, and a lot of that is Verizon FiOS which is no longer expanding. In most markets the cable companies are still competing against DSL – a battle they have largely won.
For a while the telcos were rapidly expanding broadband products based upon paired-copper DSL, like AT&T U-verse, and were capturing a lot of data customers. But a lot of homes are starting to find that a data pipe that delivers around 40 Mbps of data, and which must be shared between cable and data products, is not fast enough for them. This might be the primary reason that AT&T bought DirecTV, to take pressure off their huge embedded base of U-verse customers by moving cable back to the satellites.
There is a lot of press about the growth in fiber-to-the-home. CenturyLink says they will pass 700,000 homes with fiber by the end of the year. AT&T is announcing new markets almost weekly for their new fiber product. And Google is steadily but slowly building fiber to new cities. But even if all of this fiber activity raises the national fiber passings to 20% of homes the cable companies will still be in the driver’s seat in most markets.
The larger cable companies are being proactive in order to preserve their large market broadband penetration rates. They have almost all announced that they are embracing DOCSIS 3.1 and will be significantly increasing data speeds in markets ahead of any fiber builds. Until now fiber roll-outs have had great success when entering markets where they are selling gigabit fiber against a 15 – 30 Mbps cable product. But fiber’s success is not going to be so automatic if cable companies can counter gigabit fiber with a lower-priced 250 Mbps or faster data product.
To come back around to my original point, it’s clear that data is becoming everything for cable companies. Analysts have been wondering for a few years how the large cable packages might eventually unravel. There has been a lot of speculation that cord-cutters and OTT programming will chip away at the business. But the death of the traditional cable packages might instead come when the cable companies all stop caring about cable TV. At that point they will have regained the balance of power against the programmers.